More than four billion prescriptions were filled at retail pharmacies throughout the United States last year.* Prescription medications can help us live longer and healthier lives, but we must learn how they can best be used in our own bodies.
Take charge of your health by communicating well with your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist. Give your doctor complete information about your health and any medication (prescription, non-prescription, and/or herbal products) you are taking. If the doctor writes a prescription, take it to your pharmacist to have it filled. Your pharmacist is the expert on medication and can supplement any information your doctor has given you.
Here are 10 questions you (and your designated primary caregiver) should ask before starting any new medication:
1. What is the name of the medication, and what is it for?
Know what you’re prescribed and why. Some medications come in various sizes, forms, colors, or even different combinations, which is why it is vital to know what your condition is and why you are taking a particular medication.
2. How and when do I take my medication and for how long?
Sometimes it may be best for a medication to be taken at night or just after a meal; it all depends. The way the medication is taken may influence the way it works and thus may determine how long you need to be on it. For example, if you start feeling better after three days on an antibiotic, do not stop taking the medication because you need to get the entire therapy in your system to eradicate the infection. If the prescription says to take the medication four times a day, clarify with the doctor or pharmacist if it should be taken four times during 24 hours or four times a day while awake.
3. Should other medications, foods, or drinks be avoided with this medication?
Many medications react with various foods/drinks and even other medications. It is extremely important to tell your doctor, nurse, pharmacist exactly what you’re taking so that you can be advised how best to keep yourself safe.
4. What side effects should I expect?
Some medications cause side effects that are part of the normal course of therapy (itchiness, nausea, etc.). Once your body becomes accustomed to the medication, these side effects usually go away over time. Less common side effects may be detrimental but if you know about them, you can keep a close watch and report them to your team of health professionals. Seek medical attention right away if you have:
- A tingly feeling on your tongue
- A rash all over your body
- Trouble breathing
5. What is the best way to store my medication?
Most medications should be stored in a cool, dry place (or refrigerator if indicated) that is away from direct sunlight, humidity, and drastic temperature changes. Do not keep your medications in the bathroom because they can be compromised by humidity from the shower. Never leave medications in the car because they can be subjected to varying temperature changes and possibly stolen. When flying, keep all medications in carry-on luggage. Medications in bottles larger than the standard four ounces can still be taken on an airplane if they have a valid pharmacy prescription label.
6. Will this medication cause problems with other medications or herbal products?
Use one pharmacy (or notify your pharmacist if you’re taking medications or supplements they may not be aware of) that can keep track of all your medications and check new ones against what you’re already taking. Having complete information will allow the pharmacist to determine if adverse drug interactions are possible. Don’t be shy about asking questions. The more involved you are in your care, the more informed you’ll be.
7. What is the best way to dispose of my medication?
If you’re disposing medications in the regular garbage, put them in a plastic bag with coffee grounds or kitty litter mixed with a small amount of water. (Do not flush them down the toilet). Some pharmacies offer medication disposal packets for a small fee. Other options include dropping them off at a local police or fire station or at a designated site during National Prescription Drug Takeback Day.
8. What does “as needed” mean?
Some medications are only used when needed for a specific situation, such as pain, constipation, intermittent chest pain, or allergies. Do you know which of your medications are supposed to be taken at a particular time versus those that can be taken once in a while to treat certain symptoms? For example, blood pressure medication must be taken daily for it to be effective. If you are prescribed a medication to be taken only “as needed,” the pharmacist should provide you with clear instructions on how and when to take it. Be sure to ask how much medicine you can take in a set period of time and whether it is OK to take with your regularly scheduled medications.
9. Is it safe to drive while taking this medication?
Medications can affect your ability to drive as they could potentially have a sedative effect on the central nervous system, causing you to:
- Become drowsy or sleepy
- Find it hard to concentrate
- React more slowly
- Feel under the influence
Mixing medications may be detrimental to your driving ability. Always read the labels of your prescription medications. If you don’t know what effect the medication will have, talk about it with your pharmacist before getting behind the wheel to ensure that you are safe.
10. How long will it take for this medication to work?
All medications work differently, so it will take varying time for medications to show their benefit in your body. Every person’s response to a medication is slightly different. The way a medication takes effect into the body depends on many factors (e.g., weight, height, other medications you are taking, and/or other conditions you may have). Always ask your health care team how long it will take for a medication to show that it is working. Some medications need to be taken for six to eight weeks before they show any benefit, whereas other medications will start working within minutes of being taken. Remember, every symptom is different from person to person. What worked for your friend may not be the best medication for you. Your health care team is ready to help you.
* – Source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation